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World Soul (anima mundi)

Anima Mundi

Anima Mundi (Photo credit: Cornelia Kopp)

Generally speaking, World Soul (anima mundi) is the idea of the “One” through which all living things on this Earth are said to be interconnected.

The Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung mentions Plotinus‘ term “word soul” when speaking of the archetype of the self. And some Jungians use the term as if it represents an absolute truth, rather than an idea to be tested through ongoing experience and analysis.

Many believe the idea of the World Soul can be traced back to Plato, or possibly to even older, Asian systems of belief.¹

Today, New Age believers, Neo-Gnostics and artists have adapted this idea in countless ways.

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Michael Wood


MICHAEL WOOD (Photo credit: RubyGoes)

Michael Wood (1948- ) is a British filmmaker and historian whose innovative, on-site productions are enjoyed by thinking persons around the world. Not quite as sensational as more recent productions by other UK notables, what makes Wood’s docs different is his sophisticated levity.

Other UK doc stars like Simon Schama have been criticized for oversimplifying. But Schama makes no apologies for this. To anyone who thinks it’s easy to make a documentary, he says “try it.” And I suppose that kind of challenge could be given to cynical critics everywhere. However, one doesn’t have to be an expert at creating in order to be an expert at comparing and critiquing something.

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Joachim Wach

Professorenkatalog der Universitaet Leipzig

Joachim Wach, persecuted by the Nazi’s, fled to the US where he thrived as a professor of religion. Image via Universität Leipzig.

Joachim Wach (1898-1955) was an influential German Christian scholar of religion. His family had converted to Christianity from Judaism. But the Nazis blackballed him in the 1930s, forcing him to seek a teaching position elsewhere. He ended up at the University of Chicago, holding a post from 1945 to 1955.

Wach asked some important questions about the study of religion, such as

  • Are researchers able to understand the essence of a belief system that they, themselves, don’t believe nor participate in?
  • Do researchers simply articulate some kind of marketable fiction that has little bearing on the intricacies of what really happens in the religious lives of so many individuals?
  • Are researchers able to discern a common thread among apparently different religions?

For Wach, the common thread among humanity is the tendency toward religion, itself.

Theodore M. Ludwig further notes

Wach repeatedly takes up the question of the “objectivity” of the interpreter, whether one who is not a committed believer can understand a religion, whether historical distance helps or hinders understanding, and the like. His position is argued at length: the scholar can by “bracketing” his or her own views enter into understanding of another religion, sometimes presenting it even more completely and accurately than believers can. But there must be, Wach argues, an empathy or sensitivity for religion on the part of the scholar, otherwise there can be no understanding.¹

English: Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wach is fascinated by the phenomenon of religious experience. So he defines the term Ultimate Reality in terms of a personal experience, an approach similar to Rudolf Otto‘s, as outlined in The Idea of the Holy.

Wach also differentiates religious from magical experience, an idea becoming increasingly less politically correct today.

For Wach, religious experience is a continuous response to a “powerful, comprehensive, shattering, and profound” experience of Ultimate Reality that simultaneously involves the hierarchical elements of intellect, affect and volition, and which leads to definite and imperative action. Religious experience may have intermittences but it differs from magic.

Magical experience, he says, is a series of “unconnected thrills,” this perhaps paralleling Otto’s and the Indian Sri Aurobindo‘s notion that some forms of interior experience are inferior to others.²

Wach’s definition of action seems quite progressive. It includes acts of contemplation, a perspective just beginning to gain recognition in our so-called enlightened age.

English: William James (January 11, 1842 – Aug...

William James (January 11, 1842 – August 26, 1910) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In differentiating contemplation from slothful indifference, Wach quotes William James‘ Christian pragmatism: “Our practice is the only sure evidence even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christians.”³

On this point, it seems that Wach exhibits a position often heard today—namely, that some people are in their bad state because they’re “lazy.”  However, any serious religious thinker should, I think, ask if even the apparently “indifferent sloth” is, in fact, consciously or unconsciously performing some kind of spiritual labor.

The idea that real work can be both visible and invisible is found in Catholic mysticism, Shamanism, and Hindu mysticism. It also echoes the Greek pre-Socratic, Heraclitus, who wrote:

Even sleepers and dreamers are workers and collaborators in what goes on in the universe.4

¹ Theodore M. Ludwig, “Review: Joachim Wach’s Voice Speaks Again” in History of Religions, Vol. 29, No. 3, Feb., 1990: 289-291, p. 291.

² Aurobindo outlines several different types of numinosity. Possibly “vitalistic” numinosity would fit with Wach’s understanding of magic.

³ Joachim Wach, The Comparative Study of Religions, Joseph M. Kitagawa ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958: 31-35.

4 Heraclitus in Philip Wheelwright ed., The Presocratics, Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1982, p. 79.

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J. B. Watson

J. B. Watson via Wikipedia

J. B. Watson (John Broadus, 1878-1958 ) was an American psychologist who developed the work of the influential Russian, Ivan Pavlov. He established the school of Behaviorism.

Watson’s work has been criticized by depth psychologists, writers and theologians, alike. But his defenders might say he was reacting to the introspective (and arguably unscientific) psychoanalysis of his time.

Watson believed that given the right conditions, a person could become almost anything. That is, Watson emphasized observable environmental factors and (apparently) related behavior.

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years.¹

This bias dominated American psychology into the 1950s. But the rise of genetics and other, philosophical and theologically-based approaches threw Watson’s ideas into question.

Still, there are two points to keep in mind:

  • Nurture (as opposed to nature or, for that matter, spirit)  remains an important factor in human development
  • Watson was being scientific by admitting that he was extrapolating from observation

In other words, Watson wasn’t completely wrong. However, many say he overlooks the importance of inherited traits, the mind, free will, grace, not to mention animal and human rights.

The literary lion Aldous Huxley spoke out against Watson and his followers.

For practical or theoretical reasons, dictators, Organization Men and certain scientists are anxious to reduce the maddening diversity of men’s natures to some kind of manageable uniformity. In the first flush of his Behaviouristic fervour, J. B. Watson roundly declared that he could find “no support for hereditary patterns of behaviour, nor for special abilities (music, art, etc.) which are supposed to run in families.” And even today we find a distinguished psychologist, Professor B.F. Skinner of Harvard, insisting that, “as scientific explanation becomes more and more comprehensive, the contribution which may be claimed by the individual himself appears to approach zero. Man’s vaunted creative powers, his achievements in art, science and morals, his capacity to choose and our right to hold him responsible for the consequences of his choice – none of these is conspicuous in the new scientific self-portrait.²

SimonTheLabRat-EmergingFromCan by Michael Pereckas via Flickr

Watson’s academic career came to a stop when scandal broke out over his having an affair with his student, Rosalie Rayner. Not surprisingly, he moved to and excelled in advertising.

Watson has been lampooned for raising his kids on a strict, authoritarian schedule, apparently devoid of affection as if they were lab rats. And he did a controlled experiment on at least one human being, a particularly notorious page in his career.³

To add to his notoriety, his son William committed suicide at age 40. But as any responsible scientist will say, this tragic event cannot be directly attributed to upbringing. The two variables of William’s unusual upbringing and his suicide are a correlation, and not necessarily causal.4

Watson destroyed a significant amount of personal notes and letters before his own death, making historical reconstruction of this provocative psychologist somewhat difficult.

¹ John B. Watson, Behaviorism (revised) University of Chicago Press, 1930, p. 82

² Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited, 1958, cited by Brad in “The Long Dark Night of Behaviorism” at Psych 101 REVISITED »

³ See the “Little Albert” experiment –

4 We often hear in the news that something is “linked” to something else, especially in psychology and psychiatry. However, if researchers (or reporters) do not say “may be linked,” chances are they’re directly or indirectly misleading the public. This is especially pernicious because the laity, who are not experts, often assume that these grandiose scientific statements carry some kind of absolute authority. And this can exacerbate psychological suffering for those at the butt end of what arguably is a fancy kind of abuse and bullying.

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Alan Watts

Emptiness by Miss Gong via Flickr

No one really knows just who the British-born Alan Watts (1915-1973) really was. Scholar, writer, Tantric yogi, ex-Catholic synthesizer of Eastern and Western beliefs—all would apply.

He had such a powerful presence when I was an undergraduate student that he seemed alive when I read his books in the 1980s. We didn’t have the internet back then, so I didn’t know he’d passed.¹

Although I don’t agree with everything he says, Watts was an innovate teacher who mastered the art of spontaneity. And his wit and enthusiasm made him one of the leading advocates of mystical introspection.

Now that I’ve had more time to assess his work, it seems that his abundant charms may have arisen at the expense of rigorous thought. For example, one of his arguments about the West “not getting it” rests on simplistic assumptions and stereotypes. And some proponents of alleged Asian wisdom continue to perpetuate these assumptions and stereotypes today, which I find really boring and sometimes bordering on racism or national discrimination.

In the video, Time: The More it Changes, Watts says that Western psychologists used to explain human behavior in terms of instinct, and now – 1972 – people tend to speak of “drives.” He then gives counterexamples to suggest the opposite. Watts is not driven to eat or have sex, but rather chooses to identify with these activities.

English: Group photo in front of Clark Univers...

Group photo in front of Clark University Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. Photo taken for Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts publication. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, not all psychologists see human behavior as entirely motivated by drives. Even Sigmund Freud, whose idea of the libido is often taken as excessively instinctual, recognized the importance of social forces in regulating biological drives.

Moreover, 20th century existentialists say that what makes us truly human (and free) is a “gap of nothingness” that stands between drives and actions (or inaction). And many Christians speak of “grace” that can override instinctual drives.

So Watts wasn’t perfect. But he did popularize and provoke. And he spoke to an individualistic inner life for those who didn’t feel comfortable with organized religion.

How did he get there?

In 1968 Watts admitted to taking five different types of psychedelic drugs to learn about mysticism.

I myself have experimented with five of the principal psychedelics: LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), and cannabis. I have done so, as William James tried nitrous oxide, to see if they could help me in identifying what might be called the “essential” or “active” ingredients of the mystical experience.²

Nordstrom and Pilgrim take an extremely dim view of Watts’ ideas.

Watts’ mysticism is deviant because it seeks perversely to undo mystical experience. This is done by inferring from the fact that mystical experience is not ineffable, that there is no separation between the spiritual and the physical, which eventually is transformed into the view that the spiritual and the physical are virtually the same thing, which Watts calls his “spiritual materialism”…[this] both precludes the possibility and obviates the necessity of mystical experience. What is perverse about Watts’ mysticism, in a word, is that it is antimystical.
This would not be so perverse were it not for the fact that Watts considered himself to be a mystic, as remarks like “I am a shameless mystic” and “a mystic in spite of myself” make clear.
Watts is a strange and confusing combination of a man-of-letters and a mystic, who used his extraordinary articulateness and literary ability to undermine mystical experience by rejecting the sense in which such experience is ineffable. What one is left with, unfortunately, is, as Zen master Rinzai once put it, “words and phrases, however excellent.”³

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 51st week, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Love him or hate him, according to legend Watts predicted a flash of lightning that accompanied his death. And when he died, a local Druid’s bell apparently rang out in town, off schedule. Later, a lightning flash hit the cable leading to the bell.

Similar paranormal phenomena apparently accompanied the death of Carl Jung, another prominent innovator and advocate of an East-West synthesis. And when Hollywood actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, a rainbow appeared. So if these stories are true, it seems that God has his ways of letting us know who the real movers and shakers are.

¹ Watts lives on as a computer program who helps to lure Samantha (an OS) away from the protagonist in the film Her. See my audio review

² Alan Watts, “Psychedelics and Religious Experience,” California Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1968:74-85), p. 75.

³ Louis Nordstrom and Richard Pilgrim, “The Wayward Mysticism of Alan Watts,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jul., 1980: 381-401), pp. 381-382.

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Standing Wave - Fort Clonque

Standing Wave – Fort Clonque (Photo credit: alderney boy)

In physics a physical wave is defined as a regular disturbance in a medium, the net result being a transfer of energy.

Electromagnetic waves, however, may travel through either a medium or a vacuum.¹

Many New Age writers dubiously liken waves to matter/energy and to spirit. According to this assumption, the Holy Spirit could be measured with some kind of metering system.

This perspective seems lacking because it excludes a whole realm of grace and spirit that many say exists beyond but also within the world of matter and energy. That is, spirit is immanent within matter/energy. This is very different from saying that spirit is the same thing as matter/energy.

Perhaps those who have not experienced the numinous quality of spirit will continue to suppose that matter/energy is equivalent to spirit, or, worse, reduce all things spiritual to vulgar materialistic or psychoanalytic theories.

A standing wave (black) depicted as the sum of...

A standing wave (black) depicted as the sum of two propagating waves traveling in opposite directions (red and blue). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Christian theology, God’s grace is immanent but qualitatively different from experiences originating from the natural world of matter/energy.  So spiritual experience is totally different from, say, the aesthetic appreciation of a sunset or an endorphin rush from jogging.

Again, this distinction eludes some people. And to complicate things, many depth psychologists, mystics and poets say there are a variety of spiritual experiences—and each is qualitatively different from the realm of matter/energy.

¹ As we currently define a vacuum, that is. Most would say that an absolute vacuum is “empty,” but we could argue that spirit, being qualitatively different from matter/energy, might exist in a vacuum.

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Max Weber

Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In ...

Max Weber 1917 at the Lauensteiner Tagung. In background: Ernst Toller (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Max Weber (1864-1920) was a German sociologist. He apparently suffered some kind of mental collapse after confronting his father for abusing his mother. He is said to have recovered through rationality. This might have contributed to Weber’s emphasis on rationality when looking at greater social processes.

Along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, Weber is usually marketed at universities as one of the “big three” in classical sociological theory. So undergraduate students must learn something about his ideas if they wish to obtain a sociology degree from the academic PTB.

We don’t know if Weber was aware of Marx, but Weber’s notions of status and party extend Marxist analysis, which focuses on the ideas of class, ownership and the means of production.

For Weber, social position depends not only on economic class but also on status (social prestige, such as a priest or judge) and party (political power).

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Karl Marx (1818-1883) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unlike Marx, whose theory was geared toward social transformation, it’s believed that Weber became frustrated with politics and, in his research, sought only to understand. Knowledge for knowledge sake. However, Weber’s professorial paychecks and all the status that went with them probably didn’t hurt the process.

This is a role that some professors (and students) seem to play. They’re quite content to believe they’re “neutral” until somebody or some political force threatens their professional standing. Then suddenly they’re not neutral at all. In fact, the changing tides of academic politics can make or break a career. There’s nothing neutral about it and there never was, a point that thinkers like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu rightly pick up on.

Academic politics aside, in studying world religions Weber is usually credited with making lasting contributions to the sociology of religion, particularly with regard to his development of ideal types, his work on charisma and his distinction between ethical vs. exemplary prophets.

Weber’s work on religion was vast in scope. But he relied on translations of original texts, leading some scholars to say that he constructed “grand theory” (which means grandiose theory) based on his misrepresentation of scripture.

Regardless, Weber produced a recognized classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argued that the Calvinist view of salvation facilitated the development of Capitalism. According to Weber, the Protestant work ethic sanctioned hard worldly work and the reinvestment of profits as a fulfillment of religious duty. Protestants could be simultaneously wealthy, religious and guiltless—an ethic already present among Jewish minorities throughout Europe.

Painting of Marianne Weber.

Painting of Marianne Weber. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Weber also had important insights about the process of secularization, rationalization, and bureaucratization in modern societies. He pondered how individual freedom would fare amidst not only the wheels of industry, but also among the rows of offices that coordinated them.

Weber married a wealthy distant cousin, an arrangement that set him up nicely so he didn’t have to worry about money. Apparently the marriage was never consummated. His wife, Marianne Weber, née Schnitger, went on to become a feminist author, activist, and organizer of his posthumous publications. She also wrote a biography that shed much light on her famous husband.¹


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